This article was originally published on March 12, 2018.
We began our analysis by grouping small forwards into salary categories (rounding down to the nearest thousand), and graphing percentage of “good” performances (games in which players record 5.0 Pts/$K) vs. salary. The results are shown in the graph below:
There were 3 small forwards who had salaries greater than $10,000 during the 2016-17 NBA season: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Jimmy Butler. These three players underperformed when compared to players in the middle salary ranges ($4,000 – $9,000). This stark drop from 35% “good” performances to 30% “good” performances when we cross the $10,000 salary barrier is something that cannot be overlooked.
Interestingly, there were 5 players who had salaries between $9,000 and $9,900: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George. In this range, LeBron, KD, and Jimmy all start to look much better when evaluating value. Kawhi and Paul George also help in bringing up the percentage of good performances recorded by these 5 players.
In the next table, we take a look at individual players (ranked by percentage of “good” games) and their numbers during the 2016-17 season:
Qualifying Small Forwards and Statistics (2016-17)
T.J. Warren was the most undervalued player (in terms of percentage of good games) during the 2016-17 NBA season, hitting a remarkable 55% rate. Of the tier 1 players, Kawhi was the most undervalued small forward consistently. LeBron was a top 10 small forward, while Kevin Durant ranked 32nd of 49. Interestingly, Andre Roberson – a player known for producing horrific offensive numbers – ranked 4th of all small forwards. This is a trend that we have been seeing where defensive-minded players are more consistent than players relying on scoring or assists.
Overall, the small forward is a very unique position in that players labeled as SFs fit niche roles on different teams. Doug McDermott is a spot up shooter for the Dallas Mavericks, while Roberson is a defensive stopper for the Thunder. LeBron and KD do it all, while Aaron Gordon gets most of his points from rebounds and blocks. Carmelo needs to score at least his average points per game to be a worthwhile pick. When grouping these players into different roles, a trend emerges that the defensive grinders or guys who do not rely on scoring to get FD points dominate the top of this table. The following table is the same ranking as the one above, but this time it is colored so that players in GREEN are those who ranked better in steals per game than points per game, and players in RED ranked better in points per game than steals per game in 2016-17.
RED: Players whose PPG ranking was better than SPG
The trend we discussed earlier is shown visually, as the majority of the green players are in the upper 2/3 of the table. Of the top 20 small forwards, 15 of them (75%) ranked higher in SPG than PPG. Of the bottom 20 small forwards, just 7 (35%) ranked higher in SPG than PPG. Tony Snell ranked 191st in both SPG and PPG last year. From this, we would advise that, when in doubt, the safer option is the player who does not rely on scoring, but gets the majority of his points on the defensive end. It is important to note, however, that “scorers” have the potential to score a very high amount of points if they have a big game (high variance). We believe this “hot-hand premium” is overvalued, and that players who are not purely scorers can still have high variance games, and they outperform the “scorers” on the average.